Zonder / Wehrkamp - “If It’s Real”

Zonder / Wehrkamp If It’s Real cover
Zonder / Wehrkamp
“If It’s Real”
WZ Records
Zonder/Wehrkamp band is a duo that consists of Mark Zonder (ex-Fates Warning, Warlord and others) on drums & percussion and Gary Wehrkamp (Shadowgallery) on pretty much everything else. ZW’s debut is a ponderous artistic album, which unites the two well-known musicians, who share mutual admiration for the first time in an artistic endeavor.
The first thing to note is that the potential listener should hardly expect anything that resembles the “dayjobs” of these two gentlemen, other than great performances. Which is probably a good thing.
A spartan orchestration and atmospheres that are closer to H’ era Marillion at their most docile or a poppier version of Pink Floyd and the like. That would be a fair description… but obviously there’s the personal touch of the duo. It’s hard to tell who’s exactly come up with what here, since Werkhamp is doing most of the heavy lifting here, so I will assume that his involvement must be equally as great. The only slight issue I find with the album or songs is his vocal performance. While he’s able to put in some warm, earnest performances, his range is not the greatest, which holds the songs back on occasion from really taking flight with more airy and ethereal tones necessary for that. He’s more at ease with lower parts and really is in his element there. And while his voice is pleasant and warm, his timbre likable, it’s not the one of a kind, immediately likeable one you’d associate with a great vocalist. He’s just a guy that can sing pretty well for that matter, probably better than a lot of people who call themselves vocalists, but I guess you get where I’m going with all this. He’s not like “amazing”. Still he emotes and that’s the most important thing at the end of the day.
There’s not much to say about Zonder’s percussion, he’s good, as one would expect, but the nature of the songs doesn’t really make him shine… I mean being able to adapt to a simpler style and still sound tasteful is indeed something he does here, but then again, it’s a simpler task so his chops go largely if not entirely unused.
“I Can’t Believe” sounds like a personal piece about a separation and is fittingly introspective and lyrical to the point where is sounds like an elegy to love that’s been lost. A nice Marillion-like tune, with Gary putting in some great effort in the vocal department, but also immediately showing his limitations during the chorus.
“If It’s Real” is a darker more brooding tune, with sustained guitar tones and a great ambiance. At times, Wehrkamp’s mournful baritone reminded me a bit of Eric Clayton of Saviour Machine and EC and the Nine… that same pathos in the voice. It’s a pretty depressive song… think David Bowie in “Blackstar”, with a video to accompany it, with similarly if not more disturbing imagery done on a budget. Sick.
“I’d Do Anything” feels like a slight continuation of “I Can’t Believe” in a bittersweet tone… there’s a subtle but great melody here and a nice if not short lead. It all made me wonder if the lyrics are literally about someone dying or if it’s a metaphor, since the songs seem to allude to a separation…
“Last Place” continues that same mournful thread of personal loss, but the lyrics clearly allude to a separation and not death. Its spartan orchestration is rather cheery, which comes as a bit of a surprise, with guitars that brought Brian May’s melodic sensibilities to mind, but the sourness in some of the lyrics is a little odd and maybe even off putting. In all honesty, one of the two musicians involved in this project had made some pretty socially callous comments and it makes me really ponderous if it’s the same half of the duo this whole situation is all about. If it’s the former, I have little to no sympathy to the plights.
“Two Years” is the most rock oriented song of the album, which still continues the whole “sorry” story, drowning in self-pity… which feels pretty… well “unhealthy”; obsessive even…
“Where are the Children Going?” is the odd one, a song of protest, against society becoming more “self-centered” and superficial. It is a little ironic considering some callous internet posts from Mark Zonder about health care being afforded to those who need it. Then again, it’s unlikely that he’s got anything to do with the lyrics on this project. The song is reminiscent of a DT ballad, stripped down to the basics and as such works fine.
“Too Late” is another lyrical piece, but the lyrics are twisted and bizarre, as it chastises the other “character” throughout. The whole spiteful and vengeful atmosphere is there as means to enable the “hero” to carry on. The idea alone is sickening to the core. If someone you hate is hurt, would it make you feel better? It’s almost sadistic! What about “healing” ones worn out soul?
“The Next Big Thing” continues the same sickening airing of personal sentiments, against some nice musical canvas. Too sad, none of it is constructive.
“It’s not the End” is a weirdly bright, almost poppy song, that ex-machina’s in an almost “Happy Ending” that seems “unlikely”… it’s also the longer song on the album, for no apparent reason.
Last but certainly not least, “Goodnight” seems to twist the whole thing around, alluding this whole thing might just be a “play” in the head of the character… or not. It allows for some detachment from the very weird mental place these super negative feelings seem to emanate from.
In all honesty, this being “self-released” will struggle, but reward the musicians in equal measure. I am torn apart on whether to feel empathy and associate, with some of those negative sentiments that are included on this album. I am a surviving suicider and revisiting the same dark place is both difficult but also “easier” and “healing” for me, now that I seem to have worked it all out… and living in dark places might be interesting, but there’s not always a happy ending. So, I did feel my stomach churn more than once here… mind games… people play… win or lose… you chose!